Out­wit­ting His­to­ry: The Amaz­ing Adven­tures of a Man Who Res­cued a Mil­lion Yid­dish Books

By – November 11, 2011

In Out­wit­ting His­to­ry, Aaron Lan­sky, founder of the renowned Nation­al Yid­dish Book Cen­ter, tells his per­son­al sto­ry as a one-man res­cuer of Yid­dish books — and along the way pro­vides an acces­si­ble, infor­ma­tive and deeply engag­ing account of the fate of Yid­dish in America.

Lansky’s mem­oir fas­ci­nates as it recounts how his rel­a­tive­ly sim­ple quest for books, as a grad­u­ate stu­dent of Yid­dish in Mon­tre­al in the late 1970’s, turned into a res­cue mis­sion of his­toric pro­por­tions. In the author’s own words, it is an adven­ture sto­ry” involv­ing capers with a truck (invari­ably in bad con­di­tion) and a friend or two, as they respond to late-night tele­phone calls about aban­doned Yid­dish books in base­ments or on the verge of being jet­ti­soned into dump­sters. But the adven­ture aspect of the book (told with sus­pense and humor) is inter­twined with pathos. As word went out about his inter­est in Yid­dish books, Lansky’s road trips took him to apart­ments in decay­ing neigh­bor­hoods, where elder­ly Yid­dish speak­ers wait­ed to entrust him with their lega­cy. Before he could load up on books, how­ev­er, he had to load up on kugel and tea, and lis­ten for hours to the old folks’ sto­ries. And what sto­ries they were! After all, Yid­dish cul­ture in the U.S. had once encom­passed an incred­i­bly vibrant scene of news­pa­pers, the­aters, polit­i­cal and social orga­ni­za­tions, and pub­lish­ers of eager­ly read lit­er­a­ture. By the time Lan­sky arrived with his truck, the culture’s bloom had fad­ed, and the book donors’ assim­i­lat­ed chil­dren had no inter­est in their par­ents’ trea­sured libraries. Lan­sky allows the read­er to dis­cov­er that his mis­sion wasn’t just about pick­ing up old peo­ples’ books: it was about receiv­ing a cul­tur­al trans­mis­sion. And he con­veys the depth of this trans­mis­sion through lucid tan­gents into the devel­op­ment of mod­ern Yid­dish lit­er­a­ture, the social­ist pol­i­tics of the Jew­ish Labor Bund and much more. One comes away from this mem­oir with a sense of the panora­ma of his­to­ry through which even the most com­mon Yid­dish book has passed. 

Lan­sky, who won a MacArthur Award for his sim­ple” idea of res­cu­ing Yid­dish books, has per­formed anoth­er impor­tant deed with his warm, anec­do­tal mem­oir. He tells the sto­ry of the Nation­al Yid­dish Book Cen­ter in a way that not only evokes laugh­ter and tears (the emo­tions most asso­ci­at­ed with the pop­u­lar­iza­tion of Yid­dish in Amer­i­ca) but also draws the read­er into an aware­ness of the cul­tur­al and intel­lec­tu­al rich­es of Yid­dish. Lan­sky proves, in the words of the great schol­ar Max Wein­re­ich, that Yid­dish has mag­ic” and will out­wit his­to­ry” — as long as there are peo­ple ready to cre­ate imag­i­na­tive new links in a chain of cul­tur­al transmission.

Mer­le Lyn Bach­man is a poet and asso­ciate pro­fes­sor of Eng­lish at Spald­ing Uni­ver­si­ty in Louisville, KY. She is the author of Recov­er­ing Yid­dish­land’ ”: Thresh­old Moments in Amer­i­can Lit­er­a­ture” (Syra­cuse Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2008) and a book of poet­ry, Dio­ra­ma with Flee­ing Fig­ures” (Shears­man Books, 2009).

Discussion Questions

From: Mass­a­chu­setts Cen­ter for the Book 

1. On their first trip to New York to look for Yid­dish books, Lan­sky and his fel­low stu­dents stop for lunch at the Gar­den Cafe­te­ria. (Hard­cov­er pp 20 ff). The humor­ous scene that ollows high­lights the cen­tral theme of dif­fer­ence and sim­i­lar­i­ty devel­oped through­out the ook. How does dif­fer­ence yield to com­mon cause at the phys­i­cal and emo­tion­al lev­el in his vignette? Where do you find these themes fur­ther devel­oped in the book?

2. Char­ac­ters in this sto­ry are dressed in par­tic­u­lar and sig­nif­i­cant ways. How do the clothes help us to under­stand peo­ple, pri­or­i­ties, and cul­tures in Out­wit­ting History?

3. Lan­sky describes him­self as the man who saved Yid­dish books (rather than Yid­dish lit­er­a­ture). What do books mean to Lan­sky and to the peo­ple who donate them? Look for exam­ples on (HC page 37 and 45). What oth­er pas­sages about the mean­ing or impor­tance of books did you notice? Do books bear mean­ing in your fam­i­ly or cul­tur­al his­to­ry? And why did books take on such spe­cial impor­tance for Jew­ish immi­grants in America?

4. Why did so many old­er Jews con­sid­er their Yid­dish books their yerushe or inher­i­tance”? How is this con­cept of inher­i­tance dif­fer­ent from or sim­i­lar to your own?

5. Much is made of the dif­fer­ence between the Hebrew and Ara­ma­ic books that schol­ars read and the Yid­dish books that Lan­sky too often finds heaped in dusty piles of attics and base­ments. The dif­fer­ences are those of clas­si­cal and pop­u­lar cul­ture, of high and low art. How do those dis­tinc­tions play out in the book? How do oth­er dis­tinc­tions between high and low cul­ture affect your life?

6. Dis­cuss some of the ways the next gen­er­a­tion con­sid­ered them­selves to be unlike” their immi­grant grand­par­ents. Is it unusu­al to find chil­dren more inter­est­ed in the gen­er­a­tion of their grand­par­ents than that of their parents?

7. Lan­sky describes the Nation­al Yid­dish Book Cen­ter as a home” for Yid­dish books. Where had these books been liv­ing before? Why did they need a home?

8. When Lan­sky want­ed to start the Nation­al Yid­dish Book Cen­ter, he came full cir­cle, to Amherst, Mass­a­chu­setts, where he first learned to read Yid­dish. What moti­vat­ed this choice?9. What oppo­si­tions to a Nation­al Yid­dish Book Cen­ter did Lan­sky encounter and have to over­come? What were the polit­i­cal and fis­cal real­i­ties with which he grap­pled? Do you think most start-up non­prof­its face sim­i­lar challenges?

10. Lan­sky describes the Cana­di­an immi­gra­tion expe­ri­ence as a mosa­ic” rather than a melt­ing pot. (HC, pp. 227) What does he mean by this? How did Amer­i­can and Cana­di­an Jew­ish cul­ture devel­op differently?

11. This is a sto­ry, final­ly, of local heroes, of indi­vid­u­als who make con­tri­bu­tions to a larg­er good. Who is your favorite local hero or what is your favorite vignette from the book? How does this per­son­al sto­ry fit into the larg­er his­tor­i­cal context?

12. In the end, do you think Yid­dish out­wits” his­to­ry? Why or why not?